Al Boulus, of legendary hot dog stand, dies
By Mark Wineka
Al Boulus, whose generous life and legendary hot dog stand touched the lives of thousands of Salisburians, died early Tuesday morning at Rowan Regional Medical Center. He was 86.
His eatery ó Al’s Night Hawk ó became an institution, representing a rite of passage for many of its customers over a half century.
The Night Hawk especially catered to myriad waves of Catawba College students, many of whom worked for Boulus and became lifelong friends of him and his wife, Thelma.
There’s even a longstanding page on Facebook called “Friends of Al’s Night Hawk.”
“He put a lot of Catawba kids through college,” said friend and former customer Jerry Barger, who owns Corbin Hills Golf Club, a favorite place of Boulus’ in retirement.
“He would lend them money against their paychecks, and they would really celebrate him as one of their heroes. He was a good man and a good person.”
It became a familiar Salisbury story: Catawba College graduates moving away only to make regular pilgrimages back to Al’s. Mainly for his hot dogs and conversation.
“Everybody liked his hot dogs,” said Salisbury pharmacist Dallas Ammons, who went to Catawba College under the GI bill and often hurried over to the original Night Hawk for a quick lunch. Later, the friends would be part of a group that played poker on occasion.
“Al was just a fine, beautiful person,” Ammons said. “He helped anyone he could.”
College students also were attracted to the Night Hawk because he sold beer. Once a customer brought back a beer pitcher and four mugs he had taken from the restaurant 30 years earlier.
Salisburians in general have fond memories, too, of going to Al’s as youngsters and, by the time they were in high school and driving, ordering footlong hot dogs by curb service.
Coleman Emerson said he and his high school friends would turn over soft drink crates behind the Night Hawk and use them as stools while they talked about everything under the sun.
Emerson actually preferred Al’s burgers over the hot dogs because they came with a big round of onion.
“We’re talking about a disc of onion,” said Emerson, who thinks the Night Hawk also was one of the first places to offer pizza pies.
Central to the whole Night Hawk experience was Boulus, the first person in his Lebanese family to be born in America.
If anyone fit the name “Al,” the swarthy, round-faced Boulus did.
He was usually smoking a cigarette behind his formica counter and almost always wore a cooking apron. People liked to say that ashes from his cigarette sometimes found their way into the food, but customers always thought Al’s frequent “C” sanitation rating was a badge of honor.
“It was just sort of the quintessential place to eat in Rowan County,” says Kathy Pulliam, who grew up going to Al’s Night Hawk. “He always had such a poor rating. It wasn’t the food, it was just that it was old. There wasn’t any problem with the cleanliness of the food or his staff.
“There was something about outside at Al’s that was so special.”
Over 51 years, the Night Hawk moved among three different locations on West Innes Street.
The most remembered Al’s Night Hawk ó the second one across from the West Innes Street fire station and former Blackwelder’s ó closed in 1984, and the Bouluses moved to a spot next to Rufty’s Garden Center.
Mark Anthony took the last footlong served at the old place and froze it. He still had that footlong in his freezer when Boulus finally retired 17 years later in 2001.
Starting under the Bouluses’ ownership in 1950, The Night Hawk operated for nine years close to the college where today’s Weaver Building now stands. It was known for its nine stools out front and curb service in the back.
The second Night Hawk officially became “Al’s Night Hawk” and operated for 25 years. The place seemed to be open all day, from about 10 a.m. to midnight or 1 a.m., depending on how long Boulus wanted to stay.
It had a horseshoe pit in the back, and regulars at the restaurant often walked in the back door, fetched a beer out of the cooler and dropped their money on top of the cash register.
Boulus had a standing rule against fighting or cussing around women. A sign on the wall also said, “If your check bounces, so will you.”
“Write Al a bad check, and he would teach you a lesson about the collection business,” the late Richard Perkins wrote in 1998. “He was tough, but always compassionate.”
Perkins said many of the college students who owed him money were allowed to work off their debts at the restaurant. He paid a decent wage, and the tips for curb service were good, Perkins said.
The second Al’s location had a sign spoofing the preservation movement, saying the site, established in 1959, had been nominated for the National Register.
Once a public television crew, looking for the best hot dog places in North Carolina, stopped in and documented Bobby Rodgers eating nine dogs at one sitting.
The last 17 years, the Night Hawk was in the West Innes Street building next to Rufty’s Garden Center. It was known for a big sign with a caricature of Al and a hot dog displayed prominently. The changeable sign below it usually noted someone’s birthday.
To the chagrin of some Night Hawk loyalists, the “new” Al’s also had an “A” sanitation rating.
That location became a laundromat after Al’s retirement.
Brandi Weathers said her father, Richard, used to play golf with Boulus. Every week, she would accompany her father to the restaurant, where only Al was allowed to bring her an “eenie” cut up into about 10 slices and stuffed into a cardboard container usually meant for french fries.
Karen South Carpenter’s late father, Bruce, worked at Al’s Night Hawk as a college student. The Night Hawk was the first place he went to announce proudly the birth of his daughter.
“I’m sure there were adult beverages involved,” Carpenter said.
As a little girl, Carpenter remembers going to Al’s with her father and drinking a Coke at the counter.
“That was living,” she said. “I thought I was the most special girl in the world.”
Liz Tennent said her father, Doug, took his five children to Al’s all the time as a way to give their mother a break. “He would keep us entertained,” Tennent said of Boulus. “… Al would keep us occupied. It will always be a special place.”
In November 2003, Boulus made an encore public appearance at Grace United Methodist Church on Faith Road, helping to make some 700 hot dogs for a church fundraiser.
As part of the celebration, artist Betty Sedberry gave her initial offering of a limited edition water color print depicting the second Night Hawk in its glory days.
At the fundraiser, Boulus easily broke his personal single-day record of making and serving 200 hot dogs.
Boulus was a Boyden High School graduate and had been married to Thelma for almost 65 years. They had two children, Michael and Sandra.
At the Corbin Hills clubhouse Tuesday afternoon, the loss of Boulus was the main topic of conversation.
“He worked awfully hard and would give you the shirt off his back,” Barger said. “We’ll miss him.”